During the Siege of Leningrad in WWII, 9 Soviet scientists died of starvation while protecting the world’s largest seed bank, refusing to eat what they saw as their country’s future
“Vavilov was born into a merchant family in Moscow, the older brother of renowned physicist Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov. “”The son of a Moscow merchant who’d grown up in a poor rural village plagued by recurring crop failures and food rationing, Vavilov was obsessed from an early age with ending famine in both his native Russia and the world.”” He graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute in 1910 with a dissertation on snails as pests. From 1911 to 1912, he worked at the Bureau for Applied Botany and at the Bureau of Mycology and Phytopathology. From 1913 to 1914 he travelled in Europe and studied plant immunity, in collaboration with the British biologist William Bateson, who helped establish the science of genetics.
From 1924 to 1935 he was the director of the All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad. Impressed with the work of Canadian phytopathologist Margaret Newton on wheat stem rust, in 1930 he attempted to lure her to work at the institute, offering a good salary and perks such as a camel caravan for her travel. She declined, but visited the institute in 1933 for three months to train 50 students in her research.
While developing his theory on the centres of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, collected seeds from every corner of the globe, and created in Leningrad the world’s largest collection of plant seeds. This seedbank was diligently preserved even throughout the 28-month Siege of Leningrad, despite starvation; at least one of Nikolai’s assistants starved to death surrounded by edible seeds.
“”Hitler’s army had already closed in on St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)—a desperate city that had lost more than 700,000 people to hunger and disease. The Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, convinced that Hitler had his sights set on the museum. They had done nothing, however, to safeguard the 250,000 accessions of seeds, roots, and fruits stored in the world’s largest seed bank. So a group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them. Historical documents later revealed that Adolf Hitler had, in fact, established a commando unit to seize the seed bank, perhaps hoping to one day control the world’s food supply. Although suffering from hunger, the seeds’ caretakers refused to eat what they saw as their country’s future. Indeed, by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of the institute’s self-appointed seed guardians had died of starvation.””
Vavilov also formulated the law of homologous series in variation. He was a member of the USSR Central Executive Committee, President of All-Union Geographical Society and a recipient of the Lenin Prize. During most of his career Vavilov was assisted by his deputy Georgy Balabajev.